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California High-Speed Rail Authority readies action plan

(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on November 6.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Now that California voters have given the go-ahead to construct the nation's first high-speed rail system by approving a $9.95 billion bond Tuesday, the state's High Speed Rail Authority has a lot of work ahead.

The authority, which has worked for a dozen years on plans for the 220-mph train, will release its business plan on Friday. It will also continue preliminary engineering and more specific environmental studies - work that will help determine how the rail line will look, operate and be built. It will step up its efforts to lobby the federal government to pitch in at least $10 billion. And it will start buying right of way.

"It's the beginning of a big headache," joked Mehdi Morshed, director of the authority. "But it's the good kind. We're looking forward to it."

California voters narrowly approved Proposition 1A with 52 percent of voters supporting the bond measure and 48 percent opposed. Support for the high-speed rail plan had been strong in the summer, but polls showed support declining along with the economy. "I wasn't surprised it was as close as it was," said Quentin Kopp, chair of the authority and the chief spokesman for the Yes on 1A campaign. "But I was surprised it turned around like it did. It was reassuring that voters understood the economic argument and the environmental benefits."

The authority has already been allocated $46.5 million, including $29 million from the bond measure, to complete the engineering and environmental work, Kopp said, and it will likely take an additional $50 million allotment from the bond money in the next budget year to complete the studies - by the middle of 2010.

At the same time, he said, the authority needs to start negotiating with landowners - including the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads - to buy right of way, and it will need to use some of the bond money for that.

"It's important to identify and tie-down key portions of the right of way before someone else does," Kopp said.

Construction could start as soon as the end of 2010, Kopp said, but before any of the bond money can be spent on construction, the authority must have a detailed funding plan to complete the segment of the system being built. The cost of building the line from San Francisco's Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles' Union Station and Anaheim is estimated at $32 billion with extensions to Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside County adding roughly another $12 billion.

Kopp said Wednesday that he is optimistic about getting federal funding for high-speed rail and the remaining one-third of the funding from the private sector. He also said that six firms are tentatively interested in investing in the system once preliminary plans are completed and a couple dozen more are interested in helping build or operate the system in partnership with the state.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at a post-election press briefing Wednesday, praised voters for passing Proposition 1A, and predicted federal financial support for California high-speed rail.

"There is legislation that will set up 11 regional systems in the U.S. for high-speed rail, and we will qualify as one of them," she said. "I think we've now got our ducks in order to be No. 1 on that list, and as an appropriater, that will be a job of mine."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

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